All art projects have an element of experimentation and exploration inherent in them. This creative risk taking contributes massively to the excitement of art education. However, some of these projects engage with this aspect more than others. This article looks at some examples of the art project as investigation.
When presented with a title of a project, students can feel like they have to find an answer or solution. Often these answers are simple, students frequently respond in a way that proclaims: “my position is this.”
In this situation what is happening to the student is they can feel like they have to come up with an all-encompassing truth that cannot be argued or disproved. In many cases this is communicated in such a way as to say: “here is my truth and what I believe in”. This reaction, whether expected by the lecturer or not may be fuelled by the misconception that they need to find a concrete answer at all. What they miss out on is the idea that the investigation itself is the most purposeful and positive aspect of the practice.
What Carl Popper brought to critical thinking, and why he is so important to this discussion, is that he believed that for anything to be scientific it had to have an element of fallibility. In essence, it could only be true if it could be tested and, hypothetically, that there could be more than one outcome. Understandably, Popper antagonised devout Marxians and Freudians because neither Communism or Psychoanalysis were posed as hypothesise. Rather, and forgive the simplification of the discussion here, they were discussed as inevitabilities, Communism as an inevitable outcome of extreme capitalism and Psychoanalysis as the only way of interpreting or working with the subconscious.
What we can learn from Popper, and artists that work in a scientific and exploratory way, is to appreciate that each question will lead to another more in depth question. Because our world is not static, because culture is always changing and our technology continually advancing, we can continue to ask complex and valuable questions.
Almost more importantly, the questions may identify our relationship with each other, ourselves and the world around us more than simple answers would.
A central concern then for the lecturer is how to make this experience of continuing exploration central to the learning environment. Each year thousands of students are set tasks that expect them to make single outcomes and responses. Yet, many of these students will feel overwhelmed by the difficulty of trying to condense a lengthy period of investigation into a single object.
Often, the frequently seen student practice of leaving production and response to the last minute, comes not from lack of inventive and experimental products, but more from how to bring these together into a “final response”. I have long battled with the idea of “final response” and immediately mistrust discussions early on in a project that race to determine what this might be.
Of particular interest is the correlation between ethical projects students are undertaking and how long they gestate their ideas before committing to a “final response”. It might be that by the very ethical nature of the project, the element they don’t want to pin down, is doing so because they are being ethical and don’t want to be hasty and discriminatory.
Yet, if these students’ exploratory work was seen as just as valid and as responsive and constructive as “final outcomes” then it might become easier for everyone. For example, many lecturers will bear a love for sketchbook practice higher than anything else. It is the journey and the exploratory nature of the sketchbooks that is so nourishing. So how can we as course leaders and lectures translate this practice of experimenting and testing into one which is communicated to an audience?
A simple answer may be to rule out the “final outcome” discourse and to move to create a space that presents the development and exploration. The “final show” could become “laboratory”, a space where different experiments are taking place, that don’t propose a solution, but where the audience can come into contact with experiments as they are happening.
Creative ideas are bubbling away, ideas and hypothesise are being tested and stretched and wonderful synthesise are being made. Yet there is an urge for students to make a “final response”, which frequently doesn’t live up to the exploration potential.
In other fields of exploration, it is perfectly acceptable to present a set of data or findings. Frequently, these only lead to further questions and don’t give outright solutions. Consider psychology and the complexity of engagement with investigations. I have worked with many PhD psychology students and it never ceases to surprise me how they are never disheartened by outcomes to their investigations. They were simply interested in finding out about us and how we work. Surely, art students can experience the same kind of positive investigation.
One way of invigorating practice is to deliver the project with a title that is a question itself. This will drive passionate and purposeful debate within the studio, which automatically increases the commitment to the project. It will also open up the concept of investigation as a creative practice in itself. At first it might seem daunting to the teaching team, but students at all levels are surprisingly good at undertaking practical investigation if given the framework and study skills to do so.
I recently ran a project called What Will Become of Me? At this point in the year, where students are making huge decisions about their futures, I felt it valid that they consider where their decisions and aspirations would take them. As they were writing personal statements, creating portfolios and having to make statements in interview about their future, it made sense to present these kinds of concepts visually.
Some of the teaching team felt that it would be overly ambitious and was too conceptual for this level of learner, but the responses to the process were as in depth and sophisticated as the primary question. I also feel that it helped them learn more about themselves and their relationship to their practice.
Exhibition with Questions as Titles
An exhibition that used a question to drive speculative and investigatory approaches by artists is New Creatives at the Aspex Gallery in Portsmouth:
The primary question being responded to throughout the year at the Aspex by all artists is: “Does making things make us human.” The exhibition combines work from a range of further education schools and colleges in the area. Some of the students participating have done really well to identify the relevance of the question and take the opportunity not to impose the answers, but to focus on the practice of making and investigating itself.
One of the most simple, yet powerful works is The Equation of Price by Vitto Manetti, a student at Fareham College on a course run by Justin Bateman. He has made a very hypnotic and process orientated video of himself building a stack of pegs over and over. What is so interesting about this is the reduction of his personality to almost mechanical proportions. He wears a simple white overall with a face mask. The viewer then focuses on the actions that he performs repeatedly. By mechanising his body and routine to the simple and repetitive action, he draws attention to how people are often asked to make things that are essentially non-creative. It is really inspiring to see a student at this level consider opposing and alternative perspectives. He doesn’t give us an answer, or at least not the positive one we were all expecting, but looks deeper at the complex relationship we have with the process of creating.
Transformism – An Investigative Exhibition
A recent exhibition by Melanie Jackson and Revital Cohen at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton called Transformism really inspired this idea of research and investigation (http://www.hansardgallery.org.uk/event-detail/19-transformism-melanie-jackson-and-revital-cohen/ ). While they have not titled the exhibition as a question, they both certainly approached the theme in a scientific and open way.
Melanie Jackson’s work is highly experimental. Her starting point is the idea of life itself, how things can grow and evolve. She looks at this from a scientific and a creative point of view and tests the boundaries of where these meet and what similarities they have. For example, there are videos that combine dated natural history visuals with her microscopic photographs. These are juxtaposed and layered with 3D CGI models of new life forms. There are sculptures of new vegetables inspired by current developments in genetic modification. The work doesn’t remain as video or a single specialism, but borrows from as many disciplines as possible: installation, sculpture, video and audio.
One of the beautiful aspects of this show is the centrality of the reading room. Rather than a side aspect of the exhibition, the reading room is physically central to the project and all visitors must pass through it at a mid point in the exhibition.
It is clear from this placing of research and the amount of attention that has been put into creating a contemplative space, that investigation into the theme of “life” and evolution is as important as actual artworks on display.
It isn’t publications by the artists that are on display as a normal reading room might offer. The literature available for the audience is what provoked and inspired both Jackson and Cohen. It is easy then for the audience to make the connections and to pose their own questions. At first it might appear that they are simplifying their ideas for the audience, but what actually happens is it enriches the dialogue and discussion.
Almost more interesting is how the reading room is also evolving and turning into an experiment. The literature itself is explored both textually and through creative practice. New growths emerge from the literature itself:
I would really recommend that students could attempt something along the same lines. It would be fantastic for them to have a space within the exhibition to present their investigations from throughout the project. It would be wonderful if these experiments and working processes would be given as much attention as the “final” work.
There could be a wall in the exhibition where photographs and scans of doodles, designs and mental processes were presented. Many of the students will really revel in this kind of practice as they often love producing sketchbook and exploratory work more than “final outcomes”. They may also learn more about how to investigate by seeing what and how others engage with this part of being creative.
Inspiration – The Arts Catalyst
The Arts Catalyst is an organisation supporting art and artists that engages with science. Their slogan emphasises what they try to do distinctly: “We produce provocative, playful, risk-taking projects to spark dynamic conversations about our changing world.”
One of their themes discusses the notion of an “incubatory research project.” The idea that the project is trying to actually nourish and evolve ideas and discourse is really fascinating. The kind of language being used within their website and literature is really open and investigative rather than conclusive and final.
Researching the Art Catalyst website would be a really rewarding practice for lecturers wanting to professionally develop. There is a wealth of ideas that could be used for whole titles of projects and would provide an excellent springboard for initial project briefings.
With titles like: Anticipatory City, Laboratory Life, Specimens and Superhumans or Republic of the Moon, the space they provide for creative production is clearly highly speculative in a positive way. For further ideas go to: http://www.artscatalyst.org/